|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2023|
Widows of Varanasi: The Ganga, the gallis and the grizzled
“Benaras is older than tradition, older even than legend and twice as old as both of them put together.” - Mark Twain
My window offered a spectacular view of the setting sun against the rippling waters of the Ganga. On that day, what bemused me more was the banyan tree that grew alogside my lodge where the gallli (alley) met the ghat. I was watching the sun play with the rugged dreadlocks of the tree, when I saw her. She was clad in a shabby white weave, head shaved, back bent like a bow from age, or maybe circumstances, who can tell. With a cane in her left hand and a bowl of alms in the right, she sat under the tree shooing a swarm of flies that attacked her.
As she sat there fighting the swarm with her feeble hands, she was joined by another woman, no different than her. Together they defeateded the flies and eventually marked their victory spot under the tree. Only the tree and I witnessed the indomitable spirit of the two women. What they could never defeat, along with millions who shared their fate, were the stigmas of widowhood.
They stayed there until night rolled out, staring at my lodge and exchanging occasional words. I caught their phrases over the usual galli noises. Their story went thus.
The Laxmi Lodge wasn’t always this immaculately decorated cocoon that housed foreigner guests. A month back, it was a nameless shelter for aged widows who had come to Varanasi after their husband’s demise. Ostracised by society and abandoned by their families, these widows found hope in this holy land. They lived here for over 50 years, begging and chanting the lord’s name. But they know they are a cursed lot. At seventy, these women have again become homeless as the tourist population takes over the city. The dilapidated ashrams of the widows are now being converted into hotels for the sake of profiteering. The aged have been rehabilitated to shabbier areas where the Ganga can no longer reach them.
They wondered in silence, what if we had lived here alongside the tourists? We could have offered them a grandmother’s love, made them delicacies, told them rare stories. Are those no longer sought after? We could have shown them our handiworks, catered to their needs, imparted life lessons. We could have sung kirtans on gloomy evenings, sent them back with aachar for loved ones. We could have relished the familial for once, found a livelihood, a reason to keep going. Their stay could have funded our remaining days without having to beg. It could have been a place where people of the world got a glimpse of India through the eyes of the aged, learnt a way or two on how to treat elders back home. Is that a lot of happiness we are asking for?
Are we too old now to dream of such a life, too lost to ever be found? Can the city of moksha not gift us a safe haven?
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